Today we offer the last of our endorsements in this 2016 general election, the very local contests for the state General Assembly and the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.
Perhaps even more than those seeking roles in the federal government, the choices and decisions today's candidates make will touch our lives every day. In choosing candidates to endorse, we sought to assess their grasp of the issues and whether their stands moved beyond mere talking points; and we measured how much homework they've done on topics that may not naturally be in their wheelhouse.
In all cases, we listened for a willingness to ask questions, to listen, to collaborate, to be transparent in their – and our – dealings.
1st State Senate District: Monty Mason
Democrat Monty Mason is seeking to move from the House of Delegates to the state Senate to fill the seat left vacant when John Miller died in April. We believe that his election to the seat will make for a near-seamless transition.
There are two other candidates seeking the seat: Republican Thomas Holston, a retired firefighter from Newport News, and John Bloom, an Independent candidate from Newport News.
Mason is dedicated to carrying on Miller's focus on educational issues — and we support that – but he speaks well to other issues as well.
On transportation, Mason says raising more funds for needed projects comes down to increasing the gas tax or imposing tolls. He says tolls offer easier flexibility — a discount for locals or for using the roads in off-peak times — which a tax doesn't.
He also applauded James City County's work moving forward on the Skiffes Creek Connector, especially the efforts to find state money to go with federal funds that had been assigned to the project and sat unused for years.
On the economy, he called it critical to protect the foundations of our local economy —tourism and defense — while we prepare for the emerging 21st century economy. He pointed to the nascent program in cybersecurity at Thomas Nelson Community College as a big step in the right direction, and the hoped-for expansion at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility as a potential boon to Eastern Virginia.
On the arrival/expansion of technology-based businesses to the state, he said he understands localities' concerns about having their local zoning laws upended by Airbnb and other such businesses. He hoped the commission appointed by the General Assembly to look at how these companies would operate — and pay taxes — comes back with workable solutions.
Senior issues, he said, pervade the district. In 2020, 25 percent of the U.S. population will be over age 65; he says 32 percent of his district is already there. More and more those seniors want to age in place, not in nursing homes.
He'd like the state to continue on its current track on approving more beds for assisted living rather than nursing home care. We also need some solutions for geriatric mental health care: he said big, state-run facilities are inefficient.
In speaking to the partisanship that seems to have a vise-like grip on government, his take is Richmond isn't as divided by party as it sometimes looks. He sees people willing to work across party lines and says people know who does the work and they go to them for help to get things done.
From here, Mason is one who does the work; we think he should continue doing it in the state Senate.
93rd General Assembly District: Mike Mullin
Mason resigned his seat in the House of Delegates effective this month, setting up this contest between Democrat Mike Mullin, a criminal prosecutor from Newport News, and Republican Heather Cordasco, a former member of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.
We agree with Mullin's broad view of issues, and the middle ground he stands on seems most akin to the nature of the district.
Mullin spends most of his work life in Juvenile and Family Court and has a strong sense of the value of law and order and its role in creating a civil, safe society. He sees education as a way to make that happen.
On keeping kids out of court and jail, he says experience tells him two things are key: after-school activities and adult influence.
On pre-kindergarten education, he thinks more children could benefit from participating in it.
On ongoing revisions to high school curriculum to bring it in line with preparing students for being part of the 21st century work world, he says that needs to continue. He's also in favor of more apprenticeships working through skilled trades or community colleges to get kids ready for work.
The state has spent too long not adequately investing in K-12 education, Mullin says.
So where would the money come from to pay for these things? A lot of it is being spent in the criminal justice system, and he says it could be put to better use.
Mullin says courts and jails have become the providers of last resort for the mentally ill, addicts, those kids who would have benefited from after-school activities and the influence of an adult. If we invested more of the money spent on courts and jails up front, in schools and education, we'd need less of it on the back end, he says.
On raising taxes, Mullin is appropriately cautious, even when it comes to transportation. He's in favor of widening I-64 to three lanes through to Richmond — following a full environmental impact study — and says the funds need to come from a combination of gas tax, tolls and hot lanes.
He supports Medicaid expansion, but concedes that, if elected, he'd be in the minority and his won't be the vote to make it happen.
While there are plenty of lawyers in Richmond, not many share his background in criminal prosecution and his desire to redirect those efforts. He says he's seeking the House of Delegates seat because he thinks he can help, can make a difference. So do we.
W-JCC School Board, Powhatan District: Lisa Ownby
Seeking a seat on the Williamsburg-James City County School Board is not for the faint of heart.
They're searching for a new superintendent, building a new middle school, looking at redistricting middle school students — at least, and dealing with how to narrow an achievement gap among groups of students. They're working on budgets, issues with teacher pay and retention, and prioritizing capital improvements.
Then there's the really hard stuff.
So, when you have two candidates running in a special election to fill out an unexpired term, you go for the ringer. That's Lisa Ownby, director of operations at Landtech Resources and mother of four who has been involved in the schools and the district for years.
Also seeking the seat is Dot Matthews, a senior analyst with Creditsights, a research provider on global credit markets, who is running because another board member asked her to run and she saw it as a way to give back.
The School Board is a non-partisan body and candidates run without party affiliation.
Ownby speaks thoughtfully on the issues:
On hiring a new superintendent, she wants to see community involvement that includes the public having the opportunity to meet the finalists, and she's looking for a superintendent who will stay with the district long term.
On the achievement gap, she says the return of the alternative education program could make a difference and adding access to career and technical options for these students could also help.
On improving vocational education — having a well-rounded 21st century learning plan — she thinks there are things to be learned by looking beyond New Horizons and points to Charles City's vocational and technical education program as a place to go for ideas. She would also like to see kids brought into early career planning in middle school and work to develop a flexible six-year plan that allows for exploration.
On the capital improvement plan process, she supports the work being done now on a 10-year plan as a change in the right direction.
On redistricting, she likes the idea of establishing feeder schools so kids know their paths forward from the start of school. She doesn't like the idea of busing to gain socio-economic parity and she says the district should do the redistricting work themselves.
The list of issues goes on, but the choice is clear. Ownby carries current experience with, and knowledge of, the people and issues of the WJCC schools with her every day. We think it's enough to carry her onto the School Board.
Bellows is editor of The Virginia Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 757-345-2347.